Hairball John & Friends

Keeping Metal Music Alive

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, ,   By: Matt deHeus

28th December, 2018     0

So, “Video killed the radio star,” huh?

That’s what they told us in 1981, when the title of the Buggles’ biggest hit seemed to function as a mantra for a generation of music fans.

Turns out, however, that the catchphrase has actually ended up in a pile with what we might call “the Big Lies.’ 

“Check’s in the mail.”

“This will only hurt for a little while.”

“Facts” that were eventually debunked through additional information or experience.

Facts like, unlike cable television, radio listenership being on a 25-year upward trend in listenership.  Or that better than 95% of all adults listen to terrestrial radio in any given month.  Yes, even the Millennials.  Or that 8 tracks, cassettes, CDs and even regularly programmed video music on MTV all seem to have been relegated to the history books, while radio is still going strong.

When graphic designer John Bellsmith was laying on his living room floor as a teenager, drawing superheroes and other fanciful creations, he likely was listening to radio.  Rock and roll radio, to be clear.  The rock stars that ruled the airwaves were cut from a similar cloth to the action figures he sketched.  Powerful.  Colorful.  Bigger than life.

Little did he know that he might someday have his own alter ego, with and origin tale and a legendary adventure to match.  This is the story of Hairball John.

In 2003, Bellsmith’s graphic arts business had branched off into an effort he called Hairball Creations, under which he designed, printed and sold “morally incorrect T-shirts.”

The Hairball John story took a twist when he became known to the Friday night DJs on Z93 FM as the guy calling in to their regularly scheduled shows who knew “all the metal facts.”  This morphed into a regular feature called, Sunday Night Hairball, a weekly show focused on the hair metal era, spinning tracks and taking calls.

The “Hair Metal” era of popular music was actually fairly short-lived – lasting arguably from the mid-80’s through 1991 (or, as the myth has it, until the day after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released).

The music draws on its hard rock precursors.  The guitar heroes of classic rock met the catchy hooks of pop music, dolled up in the flashy, sometimes gender bending stage garb of the 1970s glam rockers.  More than anything, it was raucous, with eternal anthems celebrating good times and hard knocks.  With a few notable exceptions, it was music that didn’t take itself too seriously.  Bands like Poison, Tesla, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, Motley Crue and Bon Jovi ruled the charts and filled up stadiums. 

As Bellsmith describes it “It was the last era where the music was truly fun.”

Bellsmith is quick to acknowledge the Z93 staff, including Lynn Roberts, Jay Randall and Matt the Hat, who helped show him the ropes of radio. 

Like many working in media in the era, Bellsmith saw an opportunity in the growth of the internet and the rise in popularity of podcasts.  In 2004, his initial guest spot at Z93 turned into a weekly independent podcast.   The Hairball John Show ran as a podcast for five years, eventually drawing a weekly audience that could be termed gargantuan, even by current standards.

Even in the midst of success, sometimes life happens, and you need to take a break.  Family and other priorities took Bellsmith away from the broadcasts in 2009, though the love for the music never left his blood.

Bellsmith’s Bay City studio is a veritable shrine to the genre, as framed concert posters share the walls with copies of Kerrang magazine and other memorabilia of the era.

As it turned out, Bellsmith’s “retirement” from the airwaves was not a permanent decision, as conversations with Bob Hughes at WIDL FM lead to the return of Hairball John and Friends to terrestrial radio.

In the new format, which airs Sunday from 6:00 – 8:00 PM and Wednesdays from 10:00 – 12:00 PM, Hairball John does a weekly show with co-host Chris Shores.  Their approach, which Bellsmith describes as “accessible,” combines listener requests with banter from the two hosts.

As described by Bellsmith, “It’s like two guys talking about their favorite records.  Sometimes we will get bleeped.  We could program the entire show just off listener requests on social media.”

“We dive deeper into the music.  We play Bon Jovi, but you’ll never hear Living On A Prayer.  We play bands like Jetboy and LA Guns.”

The formula works, as the pair has developed a devoted listenership.  In fact, WIDL is going to feature a marathon of Hairball John shows on New Year’s Day.

Bellsmith also recently wrapped up an agreement to launch “Hairball John Radio,” a 24 hour radio station featuring nothing by hair bands and classic metal.  The program will launch in mid-2019.

The plan for the future is to continue to expand the Hairball John network by adding more radio stations within Michigan.  As Bellsmith describes, “They are all interested in finding original programming. We’d like to build a Michigan FM Empire.”

Radio.  Still going strong in 2019.   Someone is gonna have to break the news to Martha Quinn, though something tells me she already knows.







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